When the Montreal Canadiens take the ice for the 2020-21 campaign, they’ll do so with a notably different look up front.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, head coach Claude Julien broke down how Domi’s standing on the team changed after recently appearing to be their top offensive weapon, and detailed the series of events that led the team to trade him to Columbus after just two seasons in Montreal.
The key factor, Julien said, was how young Jesperi Kotkaniemi performed once the club returned from the COVID-19 pause and began preparations for the qualifying round of the 2020 post-season.
“You talk about [Nick] Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, two young centres that the organization really wants to succeed. When we started training camp, obviously Max wasn’t there for the first week, so we put our group together, we started, and all of a sudden we see both those guys — especially Kotkaniemi — really doing well,” Julien recalled. “So, for us, the first thing we thought of was, ‘Hey, we’ve got an opportunity to have four good lines here.’ … That depth we thought we had really helped us get through the first round against Pittsburgh.”
With the team’s young stars moved up as the series vs. Pittsburgh wore on — Kotkaniemi lining up alongside Jonathan Drouin, while Nick Suzuki skated with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher — Domi was shifted to a bottom-six role alongside Dale Weise and Jordan Weal.
“I know for a fact Max really enjoyed playing with Dale Weise — he kept saying ‘I like Dale’ — so we tried to create a line with him, and another experienced player at the beginning was Jordan Weal. So, we tried to create four lines,” Julien said. “At the same time, with Kotkaniemi really doing well, it was important for us to surround him with some good veteran players, strong wingers that would help him out. So, we had to put that puzzle together, and just went with that.”
Suzuki paced the Canadiens in post-season scoring with seven points through 10 games, he and Kotkaniemi tying for the team lead in goals with four apiece over that span. In a limited role, Domi posted three points over the team’s playoff run.
With the club’s former scoring leader concluding the campaign as a restricted free agent set for a raise, Montreal elected to move Domi to the Blue Jackets in exchange for power forward Anderson, who was subsequently inked to a seven-year deal.
“It’s not so much that it didn’t work out [with Domi in Montreal],” Julien explained. “Sometimes this is what hockey’s all about — you end up with a situation where now Max became I guess a little bit expendable, because we had those guys do so well, and at the same time, we’re able to get a big player that we really needed on the wing in Josh Anderson in exchange for him.
“Max was such a good player, we were able to get a good player in return. So that’s just hockey. That’s more of a hockey move, nothing to do with the personal or anything else more than trying to improve our team.”